This is a revised and expanded version of an email I sent to my QA team back in March of 2010. I was a Sr. Manager at the time working for THQ in Phoenix, AZ.
To set this up, the majority of the team was at the peak of testing the second installment in our UFC series. Some cracks were starting to show in their resolve and camaraderie, so I decided to share this with the entire department.
It might have been specific to that particular time and project, but I think this is useful advice for any new leader, or someone coming into the workforce fresh, whether it’s in videogames or not.
Stress levels run high on big projects. Stress levels run high in Quality Assurance, period. This has been a universal truth for as long as I’ve been in this industry. As the end of UFC 2‘s test cycle approaches, I’ve been asked several times, “How do you deal with all this stress so well?”
The thing is, I don’t know that I do. I know I haven’t in the past. Maybe I’ve learned to not let it show as much?
Whatever the case may be, I know it’s hard not to focus solely on — and get annoyed by — the world as you know it: Your team.
This very insular existence becomes the mind-numbing standard until that submission notification to Sony and Microsoft goes out and releases us back into the wild. “What is this… ‘sunlight’ you speak of?” and its variants are things I commonly hear during crunch-time, even in Phoenix where that scalp-baking sun seems to hover just a few short feet above our heads.
Sometimes we get pushed beyond our limit, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of losing it with our testing brothers and sisters, and so I want to share a couple key moments in my career that helped me keep and maintain perspective.
Back in early 1996 when I was still a new Tester, my middle name was “Overly Ambitious”, and I had an arrogant, know-it-all attitude to match. I thought I was going to be the next big-shot Designer on The Bard’s Tale IV, after all. I came into the job thinking that I was above my peers, just because I had played a bunch of obscure import games and could namedrop various industry figureheads. It’s definitely cringe-worthy stuff to recollect.
Anyway, about 4 months or so into my time at Interplay, one of my coworkers was chosen to be the newest Lead Tester. I don’t know why, but I got so mad that he was picked instead of me. He ended up taking over as my direct supervisor, and frankly, I treated him like garbage. He would ask me questions and I wouldn’t even look at him. When I did answer, it was with a bitterly sarcastic tone, usually under my breath.
From my perspective, I was just venting and didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I was responding to the situation the best I knew how. I was only 21, and in hindsight, it was the exact same way I would typically respond to my parents if I hadn’t gotten my way. In other words, childish. What a spoiled brat I was!
Instead of talking to him about this directly, I just clammed up. I found out later that my ridiculously immature behavior was being communicated up the chain to the head of the department, with suggestions that I be let go. Miraculously, I was somehow spared, but it could have easily led to a quick end to an even shorter-lived “career”.
Eventually, he invited me outside to talk during one of our breaks, and he just came out and asked me what my deal was. When I put it all out there instead of just internalizing it, I realized just how insanely unfair I was being. Here I was, a green Tester, angry about someone’s promotion that was completely well-deserved.
We became good friends after that, often shooting the breeze about art, and it was a critical lesson in teaching me the importance of not taking a passive-aggressive approach to coworker tension.
In most cases, an open and honest chat is the best way to get things resolved. What I did almost got me canned, and upon reflection, I was in the wrong the entire time. After that, my perspective changed, and I realized that all things considered, work was good! The summer before that I was jockeying a telemarketing desk and pushing carts around at Target. At Interplay, I was testing Descent II and Wolfenstein 3D, enjoying complimentary pizza during overtime, and hanging out with great, like-minded people that I am still friends with today.
However, another incident that really stands out for me was from when I was working offsite at Volition back in 1999. This one doesn’t have such a happy ending.
I was a Manager at the time, and I was asked to go out there to help put the classic space combat sim FreeSpace 2 through its final testing phase. There were 3 other Testers there from back home who had already been there for a few weeks — including one of my best friends from college — and we would all be together for an additional month.
Things started out great, as it was a heck of an amazing opportunity to be working directly with the studio, and spending all that time with my coworkers would be a terrific way to build strong bonds. However, as the days, nights, and weeks passed, well, you know how it goes. You’re in the same office for 16+ hours per day with each other, you go out to lunch and dinner with each other, you ride in the same car with each other, and you’re in the same hotel room with each other. Something’s definitely going to give.
And give, I did.
As the Manager, I really should have kept it together. Instead, I reverted back to playground behavior, where I would be sarcastic, play favorites, not stand up for them in meetings, and mainly focus a lot of that rubbish on my friend. I was even throwing Sega Dreamcast controllers and being hurtful with my words if I was beaten at Soul Calibur. Yes, really. I actually look back on times like that and attribute it to why I don’t really care for multiplayer games anymore.
I don’t know why things turned out that way, but by the end of the project, real damage to our friendship had been done. Although he and I still hung out and for years after that, it created a permanent rift between us that never fully closed. At the end of the day, why? Because I got tired of the same stories and jokes? Because I didn’t like hearing him snore?
No, it was because of me. I put myself and those superficial things ahead of anything else, including a friendship that we had both invested a lot into. Once again, an important lesson was learned about treating others fairly and compassionately, and it would take at least several more years to finally get it right.
My experiences are not unique, and mistakes are part of life. I know that judgment during stressful projects can sometimes be clouded by many different factors, but these situations can be transformed into something great, and hopefully some of the missteps I’ve made along the way can help others avoid the same traps I fell into.